Next Big Thing is a series where we talk to comedians who haven’t quite broken out online or as live acts yet. These are the names you want to watch out for if you want boasting rights later about having seen them start out.
Sriraam Padmanabhan’s coping mechanism has always been humour, especially in his teenage years, when he struggled with depression.
When nudged to recollect his first memory of standup, Padmanabhan goes back eight years to his first open mic in a café in Bandra that no longer exists but everyone in the scene remembers: Café Goa. “I did four minutes of standup there. It was horrid. It got no laughs,” he says.
So has he been performing for the last eight years? “No, there’s a catch there. I did some [standup] for six months back then,” he explains. “And if I have to be honest, I did it to have a party conversation starter, to get some cool person cred. Soon, I got into a job in advertising, which took most of my leisure time. I remember telling my then-girlfriend that maybe I should get back to standup. But she was always like ‘No, you’re no fun.’ She knew me. What can I say?”
After a taxing coporate stint for three years, and with “no soul left to sell”, he needed some kind of relief. He went back up on stage four years ago, more seriously this time around. Canvas Laugh Club and open mic nights were already in place; Padmanabhan ended up winning an open mic and, all in all, the entire process of standup became enjoyable for him.
After about 15 missed calls on either side, we finally caught up with a harrowed-sounding Padmanabhan to play our version of 20 questions, in a quest to figure him out.
1. What words have people used to describe your comedy?
“Boring.” Am purely going by YouTube comments.
2. What do you love about the scene right now?
I think there are so many people who are fighting barriers, like travel or permissions from home. Comics are producing shows just to get some extra stage time. Producers are doing a lot just to promote the craft. It’s the sacrifice that people are making which is really nice. And the increasing realisation that going up on stage is therapeutic.
3. How many minutes do you have right now?
I have an hour, but I really hate it. I am working towards writing a new set.
4. A recent bit you saw that blew your mind?
I think it’s one of those situations where a magician can’t impress another magician. You kinda know the nuts and bolts of it. There’s this whole saying that if you want to enjoy comedy, don’t do it.
5. Your current favourite Indian comedian?
I enjoy certain voices in the field. I really like Neetu Bhardwaj, who is this comedian from Delhi. But no, I don’t think there are any favourites as such.
6. Your current favourite international comedian?
If I have to mention one name, I’d probably say Stewart Lee. Otherwise, I am in this phase of not following American comics. I feel because there is such a huge influence of American pop culture, their pop culture becomes a global pop culture. So. It’s easier for American comics to do their job. For instance, an American speaking about gun laws is relevant worldwide. But an Indian speaking about say gauraksha is not relevant anywhere else. There are some comics like Gary Gulman I like here and there. But overall, I am not crazy about anyone.
7. An Indian comedy bit on YouTube you’ve watched at least five times
At least five times? None.
8. An international comedy bit on YouTube you’ve watched at least five times?
I keep revisiting the names I mentioned earlier.
9. An Indian comedian you think is underrated?
The thing is, we need to first define what is rated. We look at someone who has put work online as rated. I feel the most underrated voices are the ones who have no work online, and you really need to watch them live to get it. Like Neetu [Bhardwaj] is one.
10. Who do you test your jokes on?
I have a bunch of people. Neetu [Bhardwaj] is one I keep going to. There’s Kaavya [Bector] who is also a comic and a writer. There is Abbas Momin, Anurag Parab…
11. What songs do you have on loop right now?
I am going through a bit of a George Harrison phase. This song called Within You Without You that I am looping.
12. What’s the first joke you performed that got a laugh?
It’s a very bad joke where I would just go up and say, “I am Sriraam. I am a South Indian. I’d tell you my last name but we don’t have all night.”
C’mon, don’t laugh.
13. What mode of transport do you use to get to a show?
When I have money, I take a rickshaw. When I don’t have money, I take a bus or a metro.
14. Have you ever performed a show while you were high?
No. I don’t smoke up generally. I do like having a beer or two before going up though; makes me feel good. I wish I could [perform high]. But when I smoke up, I get paranoid. (Though I know a lot of comics who endorse that kind of routine.)
15. What’s the weirdest place you’ve performed at so far?
An 18-year-old boy in Mumbai was leaving to do his higher studies abroad. So his parents put up this show for him and his friends… in the refuge area of a building. They had chaat items, and… I just like to block that memory out.
16. What social media platform are you most active on?
I don’t think I am active on any of them. I just want to get out of social media as a whole.
Though Punit Pania once said this really poignant thing, also very funny. We were doing a show, and we hadn’t sold any tickets. So he asked us why the fuck we were not sharing and promoting it online. And then he added, “Humein reclusive artist hone ka luxury nahin hai…”
Most comics I follow on social media are just doing that [promoting shows]. And I am sure it’s annoying for everyone.
17. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received so far about being a comedian?
This was when I came back [to standup]. And I was figuring how to make a career out of it. So this comic, who I shall not name, sat me down and told me to first fall in love with the art form. Learn to get better. Learn to love bombing as much loving it when a joke works. Treat it with the romance it deserves, so you love it irrespective.
18. One thing Indian comedians should stop making jokes about?
Oh! So many of them. Where do we start? Thankfully the entire phase of Air India and Air India hostess jokes has gone. Hopefully, that stays that way. This friend of mine once asked me, “Do you realise my mother works in Air India and she has raised me on her own?” And that was a great eye-opener for me.
I wish people would stop using abuses as a crutch. There’s abusing to enhance, and then there it is being used as a crutch. And most end up using it as a crutch.
I wish we could move beyond stereotypes. I hate relatable comedy for the sake of it. People say look at this thing that I did, exactly the way that you did, with no insight whatsoever. (But I realise this is me being selfish and self-absorbed.)
Wow! How many… how long do we have?
19. You put out your video on PornHub...
Ya! I did. I just did it as a fun thing. I haven’t checked back on that. I put it out, shared the link, tweeted about it. Later on, I met people who told me that PornHub was banned. But it was working for me, so I assumed it would be working for everyone.
That’s me being the American comic. <laughs>
20. Reading through your tweets… you sound like you could really use a wish or two. We’re not genies, but we’re curious: if you had one wish, what would it be?
I wish people were given the resources to experience life as its meant to be, like the finer stuff. I have this whole theory, that most people have only the basics. And we are working and earning to upgrade [from life basic] to life premium. I wish everyone could have a life premium because only then you can truly appreciate whatever there is on earth; by experiencing the best of everything.
And I feel like we should stop breeding people, till we figure this out. Till the current amount of people don’t get that, let’s not add more.